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The White Sea
A short story
From the veranda of her house on the hill, Maria watched the sun rise from behind the ocean. The air was cool and wet and the bare rolling hills beneath her cradled the remainder of the mist. Going up the hill behind the house, the property was wrapped in bush – mostly gums. They seemed to her, swaying and impatient, like a sieging army. But in front of her there was nothing but cows and grass and then in the distance, water, close enough that she sometimes fancied she could see the whales passing by. There was a cup of coffee in her hand, and she wore a shawl around her shoulders. Behind her a kookaburra laughed. At her feet, Millie, the sheepdog, kept her company.
The sea had turned white. Maria could see it. She looked at the water and knew that it was white. It was white down by the breakers, where it frothed against the rocks, and it was white out back in the deep. It was white in the way milk is white — thick and full and opaque. On the beach, the sand was dyed in a long, wandering line from the north to the south. The sea had turned white.
The sun was now fully up and Maria was certain. She could see the brown cows in the paddock and the green grass and a white gull overhead. They all looked as they should. She looked at her hands, tanned and pink, and blue in the veins – normal. The painted deck underneath her was the usual deep dark red of treated timber, and the sky, earlier the colour of dawn, was now a familiar gradient of yellow to blue. But the water was white. It had happened overnight. When the sun set the night before, she was on the veranda with Noah and the water was as it was every sunset, green and clear and dark and blue. It had happened overnight and now the water was white.
Behind her she heard Noah. She heard the door to the bedroom open and she listened to his footsteps come across the wooden floor. She heard the feet reach the threshold of the sliding door that separated the living room and the veranda, but she didn’t turn around. She was looking at the sea.
“The ocean is white.”
“What?” He hadn’t heard her.
“The water. It’s white.”
Noah’s feet came across the deck and his body came alongside hers. She didn’t look at him but she could feel him peering, first lazily, and then with his whole face – that angry face he made when looking for birds, or when he was stuck on a puzzle. When he spoke, some seconds later, Maria felt relief, and then fear.
“The sea is white,” he agreed.
"What do we do?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean what do we do?"
"What can we do?"
"I don't know. But we have to do something. This is wrong. Something has gone wrong." Her voice was increasingly urgent.
"It's not normal," he agreed, then paused. "I don't see what can be done." With that, he put the matter out of this mind.
Town was about six kilometres south of the farm and Maria took the car to get there. The road wandered down the hill and across the creek, and then up over the far hill, from the top of which she could begin to see the buildings on the other side. From there she could see the school, such as it was: a few buildings and a cricket oval. The houses that made up the town were mostly in suburban rows on the flat, except for a handful spotted across the circling hills. On the far side of the school was the beach, and further along, down by the point, was the pub, a grand old timber building overlooking the water, all verandah and awning. Beneath it was the sea, and the sea was white.
It was only eight and the children hadn't begun walking to school, but when Maria got to her classroom she found Eric, her pupil, sitting outside as per usual. He was holding his cricket bat. He carried it everywhere.
"Hello Eric," she said with forced cheer.
"Did you see the water, miss?" he asked immediately. "It's fucked."
"Sorry, miss." He paused. "But it is fucked. It's white."
"I know. I saw it from my house." Her cheer had gone.
There was a pause. Then, the boy asked, "What do we do?"
"I don't know. We have to do something. But don't worry too much about it, Eric. I'm sure the Mayor knows what's going on. I'm sure the officials are right on top of it."
Eric didn't respond to that. He just looked at Maria and Maria tried to hold his gaze until she looked down at her keys. There was another pause. Then, after a moment, she collected herself and looked up with a smile, and went in the classroom to prepare for the day.
The students were uncontrollable. They were distracted and anxious and scared. Maria could not hold their attention for ten minutes before they would burst into conversation. They needed to know why the sea was white and Maria couldn't tell them why. It was bad, they said. It had to be bad. They could feel it. If it wasn't bad now it was going to be bad soon. It was bad.
In the staffroom the teachers didn't speak about the water; they spoke about their students.
"It's like nothing else," said Mrs Lamb. "I've not seen them like this since the Grand Final."
"Alice Anderson told me she thought it was the end of the world," laughed Mr Cooper. "What a silly girl. I remember when she told me she thought Bondi Beach was manmade. Who's teaching these kids?"
That got a laugh from the others. They were all relaxed: thrilled to have some excitement in their day.
"Don't you think the kids have a reason to worry?" asked Maria suddenly, and the laughter stopped. She was standing by the kettle, her shoulders pinched forward, two hands wrapped around a cup of tea, and the six or seven teachers littered about the staffroom turned to look at her.
Mr Cooper spoke for them. "You worry too much, Maria. Who knows why the sea is white? It's probably natural."
"Well I doubt that," interrupted Mr Fichte, the geography teacher, while picking lint from his green woollen vest. "I'm sure it's fine. But it's definitely not natural."
"Maybe there was a shipwreck up the coast?" Mrs Davis contributed.
"There hasn't been a shipwreck here in 50 years," countered Mr Harrison.
"Either way," said Mr Cooper with frustration, "the point is it's not worth worrying about. I barely see what the problem is. I quite like the colour. And even if the Mayor could do something, who knows how much it will cost?"
Several teachers murmured in agreement.
Maria looked out the window. In the distance she could see the water. It was white.
That night Maria slept poorly. She dreamt she could hear waves. She dreamt of sloshing, splashing, crashing sounds. She dreamt of foam (white) and water (white). She dreamt of the colour white itself, as though it were its own object. It was some time, when she woke in the middle of the night, before she remembered that the beach was kilometres from her house. But each time she fell asleep she could hear waves.
When the sun rose Maria was standing on her verandah, drinking coffee. Millie's chin lay on her bare foot. They both looked at the water. It was white. Maria looked at it intently, as if looking away would cause the ocean to disappear. She was so focussed she didn't notice the kookaburra not laugh.
"Still white!" said Noah, suddenly behind her, happily.
Maria didn't reply.
"You shouldn't worry yourself." Noah hugged her from behind and nuzzled his face behind her ear.
For some moments they stood there, the two of them and Millie. Maria began to breathe. She closed her eyes.
"I had a dream," she said, after a minute, "that all of the water in the sea left the ocean and came up on land, and we were forced to go down and live where the ocean had been. We rebuilt the farm and moved the cows down there and every morning I would come out onto the porch and look up at the sea. It sat like a mound on the land. On the beach the water would lap down at us and then pull itself back up towards the sky."
Noah didn't speak. He was bored but kind, thought Maria.
"Sometimes a whale would pass but I would have to crane my neck up to see it. And every now and then I could look straight into the ocean, like a fish tank, and inside were all these fish I had never seen before, going about their business. They never once looked at me."
Noah said nothing. Then he said nothing some more. After a minute Maria got worried. "Hey. What's up?" she said, turning her face into his.
"The birds," said Noah. "They're gone."
When Maria arrived at the classroom Eric was waiting for her. He was sitting outside the low brick building next to the door, tapping his cricket bat on the ground. Maria liked all her students, but Eric most of all. He got along with the others but spent a lot of time alone. He was curious and concerned and intelligent, too, though not on tests. He had the frame of other 12 year old boys, bony and fatless and agile, and his body seemed to cling to the dusk of childhood well after his mind had let it go.
"Have you seen a bird this morning, miss?"
That bothered her. "Hello, Eric. No, I haven't. My husband noticed it first. Where do you think they've flown to?"
"I know where they've gone."
"Oh yeah? How do you know that?"
"I found them."
"All of them?" She was smirking.
"Where?" She was not smirking.
"The beach. Let me show you."
"No, Eric. I need to get ready for class." She turned towards the classroom door.
"No, you don't need to get ready for class. I'm going to show you the birds."
Maria looked at the boy. He stood with his shoulders square to her. He did not look away.
"Miss, class is not important anymore. I need you to see this."
Maria did as he told her. She put down her things and followed him, wordlessly, across the school yard, and then across the oval, and then across the public park before the beach. The sun was warm enough at eight that she was soon sweating, and the soft, dewy grass had dried before they got to the local public playground. As she stepped through the swing set she realised she had never been there without the sound of lorikeets in the pines. Instead there was the sound of waves, coming into view, and playground equipment, creaking occasionally.
Eric, ten metres ahead of her, stopped at the border of the park and the sand. He turned perpendicular to the beach. He looked back at Maria and raised his far hand, and then his finger. He pointed down onto the sand.
That was odd. But then, Eric was odd, thought Maria. She came up alongside him and looked at the water. Nothing, just whiteness. Then Maria looked at the sand. But she couldn't see the sand. Instead: skeletons of birds. Skeletons of birds, full skeletons, lay a foot-deep across the beach. They lay to her right all the way up to the point, under the pub, where they scattered about the rocks, and they lay on the sand to her left, too, as far as she could see. There must have been a hundred thousand, every skeleton perfectly white, perfectly clean.
The Mayor called a meeting in the town hall after school.
"As many of you are aware, the birds are gone. They appear to have all drowned and had the soft tissue removed from their bodies. This is a very sad day for our little town. Birdlife has long been an important part of our local culture. They will be missed.
This appears to have something to do with the recent miscolouration of the ocean. Please rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to change the water back to normal. I ask that you not distress yourselves. Have confidence that my team are well on top of the situation. I have already instructed Olga at the bakery to gather all of her black food dye. We are confident that the black will cancel the white in the water and return our oceans to normal. When that's done, Olga will return with blue dye, if necessary."
There was a murmur of nodding and agreement among the audience. Maria's hand shot up, but the Mayor was already stepping off the podium. The audience began talking excitedly. Around her, people stood up and began talking to those in the rows behind them. Queues formed around the exits.
Suddenly, word went around that Olga was ready to use her food dye. Within seconds the crowd was moving out of the hall and down towards the water. They were all there, even people Maria didn't recognise: one big mob moving through the warm night. They walked down the middle of the road. In front were Olga and the Mayor, talking seriously. Behind them, Olga's large round sons pushed two wheelbarrows carrying two sacks of dye each.
Maria instinctively followed the crowd. She fell among them, confused and concerned and alone, until she heard a voice by her side.
"Never seen you ask the question, miss."
"Well I didn't get a chance, did I, Eric?"
"Were you going to ask how the fuck black food dye is going to change the colour of the ocean?"
"I mean. Just putting aside the question of proportion... What do they expect is going to happen? That's not how colour works."
Maria looked down at the kid. "Come on," she said. "Let's ask." And she began pushing through the crowd, Eric darting behind her, until they caught Olga and the Mayor a block from the beach. Eric slung his cricket bat over his shoulder.
"Hi Olga! Hi Mayor," she said as she caught them. "Sorry, I just wanted to ask you a quick question about the plan... I tried before but you might not have seen my hand raised. Eric and I were just wondering — why do we expect the food dye is going to help fix the ocean?"
"Well, you remember your colour wheel, Maria!" said the Mayor.
"Yes but that's not actually how colour works. Just because white is opposite black on the colour wheel does not mean they cancel each other other when you mix them."
The Mayor looked at Maria with some bemusement. He searched for a way to thank her for her contribution. Eventually, he said "Maria, I am the Mayor", with a smile, and gave her a look that indicated he thought this was sufficient explanation. Olga looked at Maria from under her eyebrows, bothered by Maria's impertinence.
At the beach the crowd stopped on the grass, unable to walk across the sand. The problem was the skeletons. With every attempt, feet sank into the cracking bones and the sharp white wings cut long lines into the calves of those who tried. Soon there was red blood sprinkled across the white bones, and the crowd stood along the grass as Olga's adult boys donned gum boots. Hoisting a sack to each shoulder, they set out across the beach, wading through wings and skulls. The crowd watched on in silence. Without the lorikeets above, they heard only the white waves and the clack and crunch of bone underfoot.
When they reached the water the twins went in knee deep and put the sacks down in the water. They looked back at their mother, who looked at the Mayor. The crowd looked also looked at the Mayor. The Mayor took a deep breath and then nodded solemnly. Olga looked at her sons and nodded too. The left son pulled a knife from his pocket and ran it along each sack. Then, slowly, as though in ceremony, the sons lifted each sack up and let the black dye fall into the water in front of them. It sat on top of the water momentarily, and then was subsumed into the white. It disappeared.
The Mayor shook his head and sighed. "We can't say we didn't try."
The next morning all of the dogs were gone. Millie the sheepdog was gone, but not just Millie was gone. All of the dogs in town were no longer there. The outside dogs, sleeping in their yards, were no longer in their yards. The inside dogs, sleeping in their homes, were no longer in their homes. No one could say where their dogs went. No one heard them go. There were no broken windows; no doors left ajar. The fences didn't have holes in them. But all of the dogs were gone.
By 7am the town was full of people in the streets, in their pyjamas, calling the names of dogs. But there were no dogs. The dogs were gone. The people were yelling names, empty names, names that floated away as they were yelled, names that dissolved in the air, never landing, never finding their home.
Eventually, the townspeople began to wonder if maybe the disappearance of the dogs was connected with the disappearance of the birds, and they made their way to the beach. They returned to the place of the dye-pouring ceremony and looked down at the skeletons of their dogs. The dog skeletons lay on top of the bird skeletons. There weren't nearly as many dogs as birds, but the dog skeletons were bigger, and they protruded from the pile. The skeletons of the big dogs were bigger than the skeletons of the small dogs. The puppies had small skeletons, too.
Like the birds, the dogs had had their flesh and their fur stripped away. The bones were clean. But there was something else, too. For every skeleton there was a collar, bleached white.
At the town hall that night the Mayor gave another speech.
"As many of you are aware, the dogs are gone. Like the birds, they appear to have all drowned and had the soft tissue removed from their bodies. This is a very sad day for our little town. Dogs have long been an important part of our local culture. They will be missed."
At the reminder of their dead dogs the crowd gave the required sound of regret, but the worst of the grief had already passed. After all, it had been nearly 24 hours since they had last seen their animals. There was still some sadness there –– many of them had raised their dogs from pups. But it had been so long since the disappearance that the people struggled to recall their fondness for their own dog. They could remember, only with effort, that they had loved these animals. For the birds they could recall no love at all.
"By now we are confident that these incidents are connected to the miscolouration of the ocean. As you all know, we have done everything in our power to change the water back to normal. I want to take this moment to acknowledge the efforts of local business leaders, like Olga, and remind everyone of my leadership on this issue."
Many of the crowd began to nod.
"Unfortunately, our significant attempts to resolve this issue have failed. Our focus now must be on adaptation. Thankfully, white is a beautiful colour. I know I am not alone when I say I quite enjoy the sight of our new ocean! And, though I know it will take some days to get used to their departure, the removal of our birds and dogs will save us all in the long run. No more dog food, no more bird seed. No more sqwauking at dawn!"
The crowd nodded in agreement.
When Maria arrived at the classroom Eric wasn't there. That was odd, she thought. But then Eric was odd. Maria went inside and began preparing for class. She put the marked homework in a pile and looked at her lesson plan and straightened the tables. But when nine came she was alone in the classroom.
Maria went to the door and stood on the threshold. There were no children waiting. There were no children playing. In fact, Maria had not hear any children playing all morning. Normally the school would slowly swell in volume until the place was filled with the screams and laughter of children. But now there were no sounds.
Maria began to cry quietly. Slowly, she stepped out of the classroom and turned toward the beach. She went across the school yard, and then across the oval, and then across the public park before the sand. She stepped through the swing set and came to stop at the border of the park and the bones. She stood where the crowd had stood, under the trees where the lorikeets once lived. She looked out at the water and saw that it was white.
Maria brought her eyes down to the beach in front of her and saw the skeletons of children lying across it. They lay on top of the dogs. The dogs lay on top of the birds. The children were bigger than the dogs, except the babies and the toddlers, and the bigger skeletons protruded from the pile. Their flesh had been stripped away but their clothes remained, bleached white by the water. The sun shone and the waves ran up to the bones of children. Maria stood and looked at them all. Together, the skeletons of the birds and the dogs and the children seemed a singular, uniform body. That's true of all memories, thought Maria. Sooner or later the things we love become the one thing, the past thing, the disappearing thing. All things go there, she thought, all things go to the same milky mass of memory. Just as well. Thank god. She realised she was still crying and decided to stop. What is there to be done? We have done everything we could. No one can say we didn't try, she thought, looking out over the beach, over the white sea, over the beach of bones, over the layers of birds and dogs and children, out of which she could dimly see the bleached blade of a cricket bat protruding.